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Just a quick post for today. I was going through some old holiday photos (mainly bonsai pics) and came across a small Japanese White Pine I had worked on in Japan.

I am really getting more and more into shohin sized trees. They are really challenging to grow well yet are easy to handle and take up much less bench space, which is a plus.

The challenge with this tree was to create enough detail in the foliage by means of multiple layers to give the illusion that it was in fact a much larger tree.

IMG_5338

Before

IMG_5370

After

Of course half the battle is starting with good stock which this little tree certainly falls into the category of.

Hopefully I can start producing some stock similar to this in the coming years.

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In today’s post I am hoping to explain one of the more difficult concepts of bonsai and or any art or design for that matter.  It is the concept of seeing.

But doesn’t everyone see? Well not exactly. I like to think that everyone ‘looks’ (except the blind) but not everyone ‘sees’.

What do I mean by that? Well, I like to think that seeing involves interpreting what it is that you are looking at in a meaningful way. For example; if you were to look at a truck, you mind would see the shape and tell your brain you were looking at a truck. But really what you are looking at is a combination of shapes and forms that are all put together to form what we know as a truck. Does it have four wheels, six, eight? Twin cab, single cab? Flat tray, refrigerated? Trucks come in a range of styles and shapes and to just write it off as a ‘truck’ is missing a lot of information.

Clear as mud?

I was going through my photos from my last trip to japan (almost a year ago today) and noticed a good example of me not being able to really see what was right in front of me.

While i was in japan I worked on the below white pine while studying at Taisho-en.

The original front

The original front

Firstly, I decided that from this aspect the larger root formed a very straight line which was much less obvious from the tree’s back side. So I decided on a front change.

The original back (new front)

The original back (new front)

So far the styling was going to plan. New front decided, check.

I then addressed the old first branch (which was now a back branch) by cutting it off.

Branch removed

Branch removed

This achieved a couple of things. Firstly it removed a large heavy branch which took away from the trunks size and secondly it compacted the tree which highlighted the trunk further.

Following the cut, I cleaned the foliage and branches, worked on the jin that the cut off branch had created and also introduced some shari to the new front of the tree. I added a bunch of wire and finally came up with an image I was happy with.

Where i thought the tree was finished.

Finished?

At which stage Oyakata strolled past and gave his review of the tree. I sat and listened and took on board what he was saying, nodding and agreeing with everything he was saying. Every point he made was spot on and I could see the issues the minute he mentioned them. I felt a little embarrassed I hadn’t picked them up myself as I had been staring at this tree for the best part of a day and hadn’t actually seen the errors that were right in front of my nose. My eye had got lazy and my work had suffered as a result.

After adjustments

After adjustments

Oyakata had made a couple of small changes that made big difference. He slightly adjusted the front angle which moved the back branch (between apex and first branch) into a position that gave some indentation to the outer silhouette. This broke up the rigid silhouette and made the canopy outline more interesting.

He also broke up the large mass of the apex by bringing some negative space into the apex foliage, exposing a section of trunk. This added layers of detail and changed the appearance and perceived scale of the tree.

He then slightly separated the bottom edges of the two pads on either side of the apex. Looking at the above image with this in mind, the separation could be enhanced to create some more dynamism in the future.

Now nothing that Oyakata did was earth shattering. All his adjustments were quite simple design changes that I already should have known. The issue was that I had stopped looking at the tree analytically and rather had got caught up in the over all form.

It probably had something to do with it being the end of the day and perhaps i might have picked up these changes had I come back to the workshop fresh in the morning but it is an important reminder to not just look at your trees. You should look analytically so that you really ‘see’ what is going on.

I am sure you all have trees on your benches that you look at every day, who’s form and structure you have become accustomed to and have stopped looking for improvement in. We all do it and it is one of the major contributing factors as to why an artists bonsai stagnate.

Small changes can have big effects, so get out there and really try to ‘see’ what you are looking at. Challenge what is in front of you and always look for improvement.

Most skills in bonsai can be learnt in a short time frame but developing your eye and keeping it active and critical, especially in regards to your own work, and this requires constant work over a long time frame.

Tenaoshi (手し) is a japanese term for a what is a fairly un glamorous but necessary task. The character  ‘te’ (手) means hand and ‘naoshi’ (し) means to fix or repair so together they basically translate to fixing by hand. It’s a very logical description that describes the maintenance task of resetting and fixing the tree after a season’s growth.

As the tree grows often branches slowly lift their tips, and or the wind, passing people and or animals can displace branches despite being wired. To remedy this the artist should as part of their maintenance adjust the wiring and maybe even add some additional wire to new growth. Often this fixing by hand is combined with some light trimming (and needle work in the case of pines).

after a seasons growth

A customer’s white pine after a season’s growth.

As large changes in the before and after images are not really the aim, tenaoshi can seem like a bit of a tiresome task, but it is an important part of any seasonal bonsai routine and your trees will be much the worse for not doing it.

After some trimming, needle work and re-setting of foliage.

After some trimming, needle work and re-setting of foliage.

So next time you are out in your garden working on your trees, don’t simply wait until the tree needs re-wiring, adjust the wire that is currently on the tree to keep it looking and growing in the best form it can.

While in Japan I worked on a number of trees which might make it to future posts.

One such tree was a bunjin style white pine that had been bought by the nursery as part of a larger collection. It had been styled by the previous owner but with far too thin wire so it was up to me to re-wire and find a new style for the tree. Oyakata gave me free rein on the tree and so I set about working.

 

As the tree began, styled by its previous owner.

As the tree began, styled by its previous owner.

So I stripped the old wire, pruned some branches and wired what was left. I then started to place branches and reached a stage where i wanted to cut off some branches that would take the tree past a point of no-return. So I called Oyakata from the garden to make sure he was going to be happy with my decisions.

My styling of the tree.

My styling of the tree.

It turns out what I had done was not to his liking and he proceeded to remake the branches and form a more upright tree.

The tree after Oyakata re-re-styled it.

The tree after Oyakata re-re-styled it.

And so that is how the tree stayed. After all it was not my tree and I certainly did the right thing by asking when I did.

That being said, did I like the end product? No, not really but I wasnt really happy with my version either. I can see why Oyakata styled it the way he did.

It is a little more regular and perhaps in that form is more easily sold (which is the name of the nursery game) and being of fairly low quality comparatively with the rest of the nursery Oyakata was probably hoping to get it sold quickly to make room for something more interesting.

Having said all that what was interesting about the exercise was to see a piece of material transformed into three totally different stylings by three different pairs of hands over the course of the day. Each person who styled it, from the previous owner, to me, finally to Oyakata saw something different in the material and I think it is that difference in how each of us treats our trees that keeps this art interesting and keeps me turning up to demonstrations, shows and events.

Perhaps this material much like all others has no one perfect way to be styled but instead many different forms that play to different tastes.

Prior to the recent AABC convention, I was asked to style an established Japanese white pine that had reached a stage where it needed some work to get it back on track.

It had been worked on a number of years ago during a workshop held by Hirotoshi Saito where the second trunk was bent upwards from what was a heavy first branch. Since then the tree has grown out with the occasional branch guyed down from time to time and with some trimming to keep the growth somewhat compact. What the tree was desperately needing was a full wiring and styling.

As the tree arrived in my garden.

I cut a good amount of branches off and had to do some heavy bending to move the apex from leaning towards the back to leaning forward. Most of the work was sorting out branch structure and setting basic branch positions to prevent thickening in areas that you might not want it in the future and providing structure for the tree to grow into.

Some of the removed branches.

After a couple of days wiring.

The tree will really benefit from a couple of years growth to fill out some areas such as the apex, but it now has a solid base structure to build upon further in the future.

The graft in this trees case is quite noticeable at the moment but I think that once the white pines park begins to crackle it should start to blend in much more. How long will that take? Who knows. I think 10 years would start to see the process beginning.

You don’t see many White pines in Australia and particularly of this size. It will be a good tree to keep an eye on as it progresses in the coming years.

I just thought I would add a quick before and after of a large white pine I styled while at Taisho-en.

It one of the largest trees i have worked on to date. It had quite a good canopy of foliage to work with and some nice features such as the shari on the lower trunk and the interesting kink in the first branch.

It was a big undertaking and took the best part of two days to fully wire. The planting angle was changed and the foliage was adjusted to suit. Some heavy bending was needed to compact the first branch as can be seen from the reenforcing bar next to the trunk.

Before

Working on large trees is a little bit strange. You have to work very closely to the tree in order to apply wire and position branches but due to their size you cannot get a true understanding of how it looks in connection with the rest of the tree. When working on smaller sized trees often all it takes to see the tree in the whole is just leaning back in your chair.
When working on larger material you end up regularly walking a few paces away to look at what you have done in conjunction with the rest of the tree’s form.

After the work

You can get an idea of the size of this tree by looking at my fingers at the top of the blue screen. I was holding the screen above my head with arms close to full stretch.

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